S&H Festival Review

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival November 2000 (PGW & ANR)

For his last year as Artistic Director of the Huddersfield Festival, Richard Steinitz once again assembled an international mix to challenge and satisfy new music gourmets, with a 10-day diet of almost continuous events mid-morning until late night, leaving little time between them to eat! This is a very personal report and readers may be disconcerted by the disproportionate amount of space I have given to Latvian choral music, my particular highlight, than to other prestigious claimants for critical attention.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jac van Steen climaxed the first weekend, bringing to the Victorian Town Hall sounds never imagined there in the great days of the Huddersfield Choral Society early last century; two grandiose works from Germany by Helmut Lachenmann & Wolfgang Rihm, who had faced each other to debate their aesthetic positions in public for the first time (whilst in USA the rival claimants of the Presidency were battling for supremacy) - quite a coup for Steinitz.

One cannot hope to like everything, but it was dispiriting to find oneself at odds with both those opposites. Lachenmann's Ausklang piano concerto negated all usual expectations of the genre; interesting for the first five minutes; diminishingly so for the remaining 50 or so. Rihm starts encouragingly vers une Symphonie fleuve IV - a work in continual progress (as is his way). It begins rather like Smetana's depiction of the Bohemian river, but is soon enmeshed in a bombastic welter of Wagnerian overload, with an augmented orchestra of a size more skilfully deployed by Mahler. Extras had been engaged to make up a complement which included two bass bassoons, six horns and a brass contingent with two bass trombones and two tubas to support the six trumpets. This expensive concert was well received and recorded for broadcasting on R3 - my reactions were personal, and I am hoping that there may be a second report on this specialised repertoire, rarely given in UK (John Warnaby, who reported in 1999 unfortunately was not able to get to Huddersfield this year).

To clear the aural palate, I went to a very satisfying late night chamber concert of works by women composers, at the beautiful St Thomas's Church, which has good acoustics and is used by the Festival once a year for suitable programmes. War & Waste was exactly so; it had the ghost of Britten and his War Requiem hovering not far away, and ended with Terezin Ghetto Requiem by Sylvie Bodorova (b.1954). First was Roxanna Panufnik's Private Joe, settings of letters from the front sent home to Huddersfield in 1917 by a young soldier shortly to meet his death, interspersed with poems by Wilfrid Owen & Alec Waugh, and a boozy 'desperately jolly' trench song in which members of the Schidlof String Quartet vocalised alongside the fine baritone of Nigel Cliffe, who also sang resonant synagogue chant in the Czech composer's evocative tribute to the holocaust and the propaganda deception that was Terezin, where the Verdi Requiem was performed twenty times by musicians and composers en route for annihilation in Auschwitz. Between these, a purely instrumental 1st Quartet by Sally Beamish, based upon settings she had previously composed of poems written in captivity by Irina Ratushinskaya; the quartet 'a meditation on freedom of thought' drawing upon Turkish & African elements, as well as Ukrainian folk singing. This was a concert such as I always look for, one in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Ian Pace played a demanding lunch-time piano recital next day with items by Ferneyhough & Kagel as well as works by both Lachenmann and Rihm (his Nachstudie, which is newly released on Kairos 0012122KAI), all clearly characterised with scrupulous accuracy and beautiful tone quality, by way of encore throwing off Ligeti's 10th Study like a mere bagatelle.

A talk by Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) next morning was greatly helpful towards understanding and empathising with his aesthetic position; his music was featured in Huddersfield in 1986, from which I recalled a cello attacked in every which way except for normal bowing, but otherwise he has been heard in UK infrequently. At a time when he identified symphonic thinking with society in collapse, Lachenmann felt the need for a radical rethink of music and its entire apparatus, beginning with 'not music - but sounds - a new transcendence, a new concept of music'. He discussed the issue of quotation in contemporary music, to which composers often resort: 'Quotations need 'spirit', not generating facile reactions - 'near' quotations are 'cured' by contradiction in context - no absolute rules are possible but I don't want any Mahler quotations (c.f. Berio) - too much!'

A piece has to reflect music itself and what music could be, a tabula rasa, 'make it empty' in the search for 'new freedom, new meanings, a new beginning'. Each piece must be an adventure and by letting all possibilities 'come' the composer should change himself. With each new composition Lachenmann builds 'a special instrument'. (The piano for Allegro barbaro is a different instrument from Chopin's.) For his piece Guero, played earlier in the festival by Ian Pace, he conceived the piano as having 'six manuals', scraping the keys first, and eventually progressing to the strings.

Serynade , with its massive clusters, played in a late night concert by his wife Yukiko Sugawara, had been conceived as 'a provocation for the pianist, the listener and the composer himself'. After each explosive attack there is a long decay to savour the resonance - 'each sound needs its own time to be understood' - 'the sound is the form' - the piece 'thinks of itself' whilst being composed. Sad to confess, this half hour piece proved less engrossing in actuality than in anticipation, after which Lachenmann's Allegro Sostenuto - another half hour piece, performed after 10.30 - came at the end of a virtually continuous twelve hour day of musical events, too late for sustaining the concentration both demanded.

Latvian Radio Choir & other vocalists

The Latvian Radio Choir (Artistic Director Sigvards Klava) was welcomed to the St Paul's Hall in Huddersfield by an appreciative, capacity audience - the north of England has a strong and enduring tradition of choral singing. This great Baltic choir showcased their own country's music in the first half of a full programme, and after the interval explored Ligeti, Messiaen, Sandstrom & Yorkshire born John Casken, Professor at Manchester, who had been ably steering the Young Composers' Workshops during the Festival. Ligeti's Night-Morning comprises two effective sound pictures from nearly 50 years ago; well worth reviving. Casken's Sunrising sets a charming poem depicting an encounter with Christ himself whilst morning dew 'shone enfranchised diamond' on a winter thorn. Sven Sandstrom's Es ist genug envelops a phrase from Buxtehude in a subtle contrapuntal structure, ending with unresolved leading notes signifying that musical (as human) life has no end.

The scarifying intensity of Litene by Peteris Vasks, commemorating a particularly horrifying event in the ruthless exercise of power by the occupying Soviets, made a profound impression, as did Psalm 15 and At the edge of the earth by Maija Einfelde, who has only latterly come into prominence internationally and was in Huddersfield to represent the music and composers of her troubled but resilient country.

During the Occupation, thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia in sealed cattle-trucks, those remaining soon to find themselves 'unwanted strangers in their own homes'. The world in which she grew up was no rural idyll - 'the world had become a whirlpool of inequity, feelings of alienation and longing pervaded her early years' (Orests Silabriedis). Cultural emancipation is but recent.

Joint conductor Kaspars Putnins led a well prepared morning workshop in the University's Recital Hall and filled in some background about the flourishing choral tradition in the Baltic countries. Latvian music reflects both the landscape and the hard conditions of life under Soviet occupation and hard won liberation. This crack professional choir has a stable core membership of 24 who work together 3 1/2 days a week. The mainly young singers are not operatically trained to become soloists, though many of them distinguish themselves in solo spots within the choral context. They are selected for blend of tone and many of them are themselves also choral conductors. Their secure intonation does not rely upon absolute pitch, which can actually 'cause trouble' from the few members possessing that dubious asset!

Maija Einfelde (b. 1939) gave a talk 'to try to explain our world perception', illustrated from CDs and by the choir conducted by Sigvards Klava. She explained that 'grey, green, brown and the colour of the sun predominate in our palette. There are no sharp or contrasting contours in our nature, as there are no high mountains and no wild rivers in Latvia. Our nature has also shaped people and their world perception. Latvians are essentially calm, introvert, poetic and pantheistic. We never lived in villages traditionally but in private farms in close unity with nature. In everyday life we do not like to speak about our emotions (e.g. there was no word 'love' in the Latvian folkloric tradition - it was introduced only in the 19th Century by romanticists)'.

Maija Einfelde extolled Peteris Vasks as the deserving leader of the emerging group of Latvian composers, 'his music synthesises what we other composers speak about, but he raises these elements to a higher level'. He seeks that instrumental music should sound like the human voice and choral singing should be 'saturated as vibrating strings'. Vasks represents 'spiritual resistance in the present time - the world exists on parallel levels, a time opposing transitory/eternity; chaos/harmony. Foreboding of evil and catastrophe create climaxes followed by purging monologue giving hope and light'. As a parson's son, Vasks regards each composition as 'like a sermon or a reproof'.

She demonstrated also excerpts by Arturs Maskas - 'his compositions more like water colours' - and the very young Andris Dzenitis - his Ave Maria a cry with no peace and no salvation. She talked a little about her own music and its life background, seeking that settings of religious texts should sound 'hymnic and romantic both'. There are two highly desirable CDs, Latvian Music in Riga LRCD 031 and a portrait CD of Maja Einfelde LRCD 033 (www.radio.org.lv/koris/index.htm or  mail to guntars.kirsis@radio.org.lv).

Another vocal event fed, with notable success, upon the rich legacy of 15 C. English music, including 'the most influential English composer outside England before the Beatles' - John Dunstable! In association with spnm, the four singers of the Orlando Consort presented new and not-quite-new works based upon fragments of medieval music. The spnm 'promotes the performance of music in any style' - appropriately for these egalitarian times - and the fascinating selection ranged from Christopher Beardsley's Kyrie, based upon a bass line of Dunstable's which is all that survives, via Jeremy Thurlow's witty Convivium - a hotchpotch of medieval Latin and passionate French - to John Hails, whose wild invention purported to be based upon the figure of Adolf Wolfli, who has inspired several composers, particularly Per Norgaard. They included Part's Summa, Gavin Bryars' Super flumina (the loveliest piece I've heard from a composer not counted amongst my favourites) and ended with a multi-textual, isorhythmic motet by Gabriel Jackson. This illuminating programme has the makings of a unique CD to join the Orlando Consort's extensive discography.

The Beatles themselves found a place in one item by Sir Paul McCartney in The Joyful Company of Singers' Garland for Linda (McCartney). This programme of commissions failed to find most of the composers represented in best form, save for the flight of the swan by Giles Swayne (the Latin text as sung regrettably not provided) which had a power and poignancy to be compared with Delius's Sea Drift.

A word in parenthesis about the programme book. This year it is full of information, presented clearly in black on white (or gold), without the trendy over-printing which has been mercifully abandoned, but it was still dominated by art design priorities rather than text-driven. It is questionable whether so many full-page photos - which often do not relate to adjacent pages - are needed? It made for a novel quiz to try to identify some of the subjects, which are not captioned (although the photographers are credited). Although they may be eye-catching, do they warrant taking up space which might better be given to providing parallel bi-lingual texts (e.g. for the Latvian and Dutch vocal items and Giles Swayne's swan). Putting those photos on the left-hand page of each new day limits flexibility to adjust text, creating unnecessary problems (as I know from personal experience). It may seem captious to comment, or to expect bi-lingual texts, but this is now routine in some concert hall programmes and with better CDs and it is an issue that features constantly in reviews and correspondence columns.


Two PLG Young Artists quartets (Chinook & Back Beat) combined forces with moderate success for a composers' seminar and a lunchtime concert. No award could be made for the works submitted for clarinet quartet + percussion quartet. Best in their joint concert were two compositions by one of the percussionists, Damien Harron, who combined the two families of instruments effectively in Convergence and provided entertainment with Hand Luggage Only, an extremely funny demonstration of how many small instruments can be crammed into four small suitcases. Back Beat finished with triumphant playing upon the jewel cases of their CD; yes, it was on sale outside [Doyen DOY CD 071]!

A performance in the Art Gallery of compositions for Sound Sculptures, created by Derek Shiel in his father's scrap yard, lacked any leavening with humour, and the hour-long programme alienated sympathy because the exponents of this 'noise music' (their own description) took themselves with such deadly, unsmiling seriousness. The metal structures, made from car ramps etc, scraped & silvered to give them new life, were elegant enough to see, without really attaining the quality of sculpture. And the 'music' went little beyond experimentation with different striking or bowing possibilities, all within the repertoire of today's versatile percussionists. They remained in the gallery for visitors to experiment themselves, a more fruitful interaction between people and objects and a far more pleasurable experience.

Huddersfield's day of percussion ended spectacularly, with a return visit after 11 years by the Amadinda Percussion Group, bringing from Budapest a lorry-load (or two?) of bizarre and exotic instruments they had accumulated in the meantime. Their three hour programme began with a marimba piece for the four players by Lukas Ligeti (son of Gyorgy), included three of the pioneering works of the early '40s by Cage, and concluded with the UK premiere of seven economically scored little songs by Gyorgy Ligeti for mezzo-soprano (Katalin Karolyi) with percussion. Memorable, more as theatrical events than as music, were two works by players of the Group from their beFORe John composition series of nine pieces, designed to 'connect, assert, save, assimilate, and possibly expand on traditional percussion cultures and prominent twentieth century movements'. There was a whole programme page wasted, in my opinion, on a pseudo-mathematical explanation, with a pretty 153/351 triangle of black dots on a tasteful gold background, which helped not at all! The experience was a primitive one of boundless, exuberant energy, visually dazzling; it will be interesting to hear to what extent this kaleidoscope of sound and movement comes across in Amadinda's latest CD Legacies [Hungaraton 31813] see discography.

Ensembles from home and abroad

The most accomplished and enjoyable item in the programme given by the Liverpool-based Ensemble 10:10, making its first visit to Huddersfield, was David Horne's Blunt Instruments. (I had spotted David Horne as a force to be reckoned with when he played in the Almeida Festival as a mid-teenager.) By using mainly short, often staccato, gestures Horne, now 30, solved easily the tricky balance problems of a 15-piece chamber orchestra with single strings, achieving what he calls 'camouflage & subterfuge', though to my ears it was not so 'boisterous and hard edged' as he himself saw it. By comparison, Judith Weir's Musicians Wrestling proved uncharacteristically bland, and Marc Anthony Turnage's On All Fours a little congested. Two settings by the versatile composer Derek Bermel dealt wittily with mordant poems by Wendy S. Walters about personal relationships; one partner more concerned to swat a fly than pay attention to her lover, the second poem using the spider's capture of another fly as a metaphor for a too intense human embrace. They were pointedly put over by baritone Julian Tovey, but without the texts, which were provided for this first airing of the orchestrated version, much of the sense and subtlety would have been lost. A third song dealt with a fearful man, obsessed with his 'bag of brown shoes', and a fourth, by a different American poet, concerned dogs; they do not really work as a song cycle.

The Nieuw Ensemble from Amsterdam brought their collaboration with emerging Chinese composers to Huddersfield last year and returned for 2000 with a portrait of Theo Loevendie, who is an active 70 and very much into experimental jazz, and cross-over work with Turkish and African music. Loevendie participated on soprano sax in his own Bons, for which the ensemble parts are notated, but the soloist is left free to improvise. Another piece brought in an African drummer, Adama Dramé, to improvise with the Nieuw Ensemble. For a late night jazz gig, Dramé & his djembé joined Loevendie and his composer compatriot Guus Janssen, who believes that improvisation fertilises his written compositions.

Janssen was featured in his own portrait concert next morning, given by the Mondrian String Quartet with members of the Nieuw Ensemble. By a separate and quite unconnected route, Janssen re-invents familiar instruments and ensembles for his compositions. For Streepjes he tunes the sixteen strings of a string quartet so as to make a newly-created overtone instrument, and he reserves the 'rounded violin sound' of non-harmonics played ordinario, (forte with molto vibrato) as a special effect, overturning normality. Temet ('almost') is a quest for a true octave for flute, violin & cello and a harp with one string mistuned a quartertone sharp. Guus Janssen on piano accompanied violin & cello for his Mikado, based upon major thirds and open string. The watery Lament for Mrs Noah (Moniek Krüs) involved a recording of a whale and w(h)etted the appetite for the idiosyncratic and reputedly spectacular opera Noah (1994) which Pierre Audi had produced in the Holland Festival. Inclusion of John Zorn's riotous string quartet Cat O' Nine Tails completed a model programme, for me one of the high spots of the entire festival.

For their big concert in the Town Hall, the Nieuw Ensemble directed by Ed Spanjaard brought to Huddersfield three pieces by Boulez, without revealing any special insight into that composer, one whose music is so regularly heard in England. During the interval his extravagantly scored sur Incises provided the intriguing spectacle of three grand Steinways being lifted up through the platform floor! Having heard sur Incises in UK three times now I remain underwhelmed, and unimpressed by the self-defeating swirling complexity of Boulez's six-handed piano writing, much of its detail swallowed up here as elsewhere by the Town Hall acoustics and the metal percussion, whilst the three harps looked enchanting but could often not be heard.

After swirling Boulez at the Town Hall one evening, on the next we had an Arabic concert (Sheikh Hamza Shakkur & Ensemble Al-Kindi -1¾ hours of unison vocal & instrumental monody without interval) with the bizarre Whirling Dervishes of Damascus, spinning like tops on the spot and reminding me of those rotating dolls which used (long, long ago) to be popular ornaments on gramophone turntables. Did their arm gestures and head tilts have religious meaning within the monodic Sufi liturgy of the Great Ummayas Mosque? We were not told, and a fascinating illustrated lunchtime interview by Richard Steinitz of qanun (oriental zither) player Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss was salutary in confirming how unfitted are our Western ears to hear, let alone understand, the micro-microtonal subtleties (twelfths of a tone) which are crucial for proper performance and appreciation of this superficially attractive music, which is ultimately unknowable without long devotion to dedicated study.

Theatrical components of the festival took in a disturbing, often entertaining examination of illness and Cure in Halifax, touring productions of Turnage's Greek, (with an educational spin-off It's all Greek to me, seen at Huddersfield New College) and Michael Berkeley's Jane Eyre (previously reviewed in London).

It was Greek which concluded HCMF 2000, after which there were well deserved tributes to Richard Steinitz, with promises of ongoing financial support for a unique festival, believed by many to be the finest in Europe, and the assurance that continuity will be preserved, Steinitz's successor (soon to be appointed) inheriting a strong administrative team, many programmes already in place for next November, and an important Birtwistle premiere commissioned for 2003. Any rumour that the programme's cover image of a musician abandoning a burning building relates to any premonition about Huddersfield after Steinitz should be firmly discounted.

Peter Grahame Woolf

  Yorkshire Arts Young Composers' Award

Workshops 20 & 21 November '00 (ANR)

Each year young composers studying in the UK are invited to submit new works for the Yorkshire Arts Young Composers' Award as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. The selected pieces - usually three works in each category - are presented in workshop formats by two leading ensembles performing at the festival. The workshop and discussions are led by an established composer who offers advice to the selected composers and challenges their compositional decisions. This year's workshops were led by John Casken, Professor of Music at Manchester University and an internationally renowned composer.

In the first workshop three new compositions were performed by Vaganza, the new music ensemble of the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann. Subito Desperado by the Japanese composer Dai Fujikura, who is studying at Trinity College of Music, was concerned with two main ideas: the first, a minimalist pattern based on D, and the second, a scale which interrupts this music. Here the composer decided to end the piece with a semi-aleatoric passage which led to a discussion concerning the closure of the piece, its proportions, length and purpose.

This isn't just a Dream by Jonathan Preiss, member of the London Guitar Trio, clearly had a strong Ravel influence. It evoked the high energy, melodicism and vitality of Brazilian folk music with the piano taking centre stage. Stylistically, it was an unashamedly romantic, rather innocent piece that contained what was probably the most memorable melody of the whole festival.

However, the winning piece in this section was Les Extremês se Touchment by Daniel Giorgetti who is studying at the Royal College of Music. This sensitive study in instrumental extremities as sensitively performed by Vaganza the following day as part of their main festival concert.

Less successful was the second series of workshops where three composers, Ronald MacNiven, Tara Guram and Philip Clarke, wrote for the combined Chinook Clarinet Quartet and The Backbeat Percussion Quartets. As compositional briefs go this was an unusual one; however, it was certainly not without potential. The main difficulties lay in the composers' stererotypical approach to the instruments. Also, each piece used the marimbas obsessively. This was especially annoying when one considers the players' ability and choice of percussion instruments available to the composers. The judges decided not to make an award in this particular category.

Ailís Ní Ríain

Seen&Heard is part of Music on the Web(UK) Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web